How The Miami Heat Are Measuring Up

We’ll start this post off by wishing everyone a Merry Christmas from TheSportsNotebook. While sports are an essentially insignificant part of this holiday’s ultimate meaning, this is a sports website, and that means it’s time for some for more NBA coverage. Since the season began at the end of October, we’ve covered the league’s contenders. All but one. And the most important one at that and it’s the Miami Heat. As we get set for a Finals rematch on Christmas afternoon between Miami and Oklahoma City (5:30 PM ET, ABC), let’s see how last year’s champs are doing.

Miami is off to an 18-6 start and is percentage points ahead of New York for the top spot in the Eastern Conference. LeBron James is having another MVP-caliber season, averaging 25 points/9 rebounds/7 assists and is arguably playing better this year than his MVP/championship season a year ago. James is even lighting it up behind the arc, shooting 44 percent from three-point range.

Dwayne Wade looks healthy and well after struggling with a knee injury much of last year, averaging 20 ppg. Chris Bosh is rolling with an 18/8 nightly average. The team as a whole is hitting from the perimeter with Ray Allen and Shane Battier knocking down three-pointers. What’s not to like?

Actually, there are problems. Miami’s trademark the past two seasons has been defense, and they were among the league’s best in defensive efficiency. So far this season, they are not, ranking 13th. It’s not like that’s bad, but it’s not championship-level play. The team’s success on the perimeter is also obscuring the fact that they’re soft underneath. Udonis Haslem has seen his playing time decline and frankly he was a liability most of last year anyway. The Heat are a poor rebounding team right now and short of a trade, there’s not a lot of reason to think that will get better.

Miami’s profile through 24 games of the season looks a lot like San Antonio’s last year. The Spurs could look extremely good—even historic—when everything was clicking, but they weren’t playing lockdown defense and they weren’t great on the glass. Eventually it caught up to them, because you can’t look beautiful offensively every night against the best teams in the game.

The counter-argument to that is the presence of James transcends any statistical comparison, given both the nature of basketball as a “best-player-on-the-floor” sport and the nature of the NBA as a league…how do I say this delicately…that’s known to cut a little slack to its marquee stars.

We can further add that Miami does have a need to pace themselves for the long haul. The two straight trips to the Finals mean back-to-back long regular seasons, and Wade in particular is at the point of his career, where it’s not realistic to expect him to go be going all-out from November to June. The defensive end is where that’s going to show up. By the end of the regular season and at the beginning of the playoffs, we might see the Miami defense of the last two seasons. But we’re not seeing that right now, and that’s why the Heat team that will take the floor Christmas afternoon is not playing championship-caliber basketball. Of course they’ve’ also won three-quarters of their games, so I guess I shouldn’t overreact.

As I mentioned at the top, TheSportsNotebook has treated this early phase of the season, from Opening Night on October 30, thru Christmas Day, as sort of an extended version of the preseason. Unless you’re an absolute NBA junkie, I think that’s how most sports fans see it. We’ve now hit the point in the calendar when basketball starts in earnest. Here’s a look back at the prepatory phase of TheSportsNotebook’s coverage, from the initial season-opening conference previews, to the team check-ins of the past couple months…

October 30: NBA Preseason Predictions
November 5: LA Lakers
November 7: Boston
November 12: Oklahoma City
November 19: New York
November 27: San Antonio
December 3: Brooklyn
December 10: Memphis
December 10: Chicago, Philadelphia, Indiana
December 17: Golden State, Milwaukee
December 19: Dallas, Minnesota, Utah, Houston
December 23: LA Clippers, Denver, Atlanta